The core of my training and experience comes from my time as a military journalist. At the Defense Information School, we were taught the “Five Ws and H,” way of approaching a news story. We were also taught something called the “Inverted Pyramid” style of structuring our stories. I now often find myself applying these methodologies to my fiction, and sometimes encourage writers I collaborate with to do the same.
First, let’s break it down a bit. The five Ws and the H are broken down into: who, what, where, when, why, and how. In journalism—especially military journalism—the focus seemed to be mostly on the first four. If you could add the why and how, and still remain objective, you win the prize (M.L.S. Weech can correct me here as he teaches this stuff).
This way of thinking ensures the journalist, before they ever leave to cover the story, would remember to gather all the elements they needed to write a complete piece. If the journalist could gather quotes from people talking about the why and how, even better. This way of thinking organizes the journalists way of thinking. Unlike fiction, the journalist may never get a second chance to ask the right questions to clarify their story.
The inverted pyramid is a means of organizing a story in order of importance. I attached an image to illustrate this concept. This does two things. First, it ensures the most vital elements of the story are written first. Secondly, it allows whoever is placing the news article into a newspaper, magazine, or periodical to have the flexibility to chop parts of the article away to fit it into the layout. In essence, if they chop off the back-end of the news story it still delivers all of the pertinent information.
Transitioning this way of thinking to fiction isn’t too far-fetched. Let’s start with the first concept. We have to think of the “Five Ws and H,” in a different way. Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, wrote about this concept in an intuitive way. The following excerpt is from this book on page 125.
Who becomes Character.
What becomes Action. (What happened.)
Where becomes Setting.
When become Chronology.
Why becomes Cause or Motive.
How becomes Process. (How it happened.)
Seeing it written out in this manner reveals the parallels in process between news and fiction writing. Just like the journalist, the fiction writer must organize their piece and ensure they address most of the elements on this list. When I do my first pass of a new manuscript, I mentally make notes of these elements as I see them. If one element is missing, then the scene, chapter, or book will likely need some slight revision (not always).
The inverted pyramid, transitioned to fiction, is a way of quickly organizing the content of a chapter in order of importance. Yes, some of the information is specific to news, but it can be easily adapted to fiction. Each chapter should be written, not just as a bridge to advance the story, but as a means of revealing information about the characters, conflicts, and world. Horizon gazing (focusing on the end) in fiction betrays one of the most important elements to the reader: the journey.
I like that background information is listed at the bottom of the pyramid. Over reliance on background information (information dumping) and world building (when it becomes a disease and not a tool) can cause readers to feel disconnected from the characters. If this tool is used as a plotting device, the writer can pull elements of background and world building up and into the chapter and sprinkle them in as beats. Seeing the chapter outlined in this way ensures the author hits all of the major points.
For those of you who are meticulous outliners, this is yet another tool for you to track and plot out your story. For those renegade maverick, seat-of-the-pants types, you will save yourselves hours of revision by simply ensuring you are covering the Five Ws and H chapter by chapter (when applicable). Sometimes pantsers hit the wall and all it takes is for them to quickly plot a chapter for them to regain momentum. This method of plotting may be a solution.
That’s it for today! I hope you found some useful information here. What method of plotting do you all use? Do you have a pregenerated template you work from, or do you simply scribble notes? I know many of you will be taking part in NaNoWriMo here in Novemeber; have you all started the process of outlining? I’d love to talk about it. Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!